Talking climate with Vernon Tava

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking climate with each of the Greens’ co-leadership candidates. This is the fourth of four posts. You can read what Kevin said here, what James said here, and what Gareth said here.


This is where we live. We’re poisoning it. And we can stop it. – Vernon

Vernon sees climate change as part of a broader picture: the need for sustainability and ecocentric ethics. A few years ago, before the 2011 election, Vernon told me that the Party shouldn’t campaign on climate change. It wasn’t a vote-winner.

While he stands by that call, maintaining that the Party was right not to campaign on climate change in 2011, a lot has changed in the last four years:

Timing is everything in politics. Now is the time. – Vernon

While the Party can lead on big ideas, the public needs to be ready for them. New Zealanders weren’t ready in 2011, Vernon thinks, but they are ready now.

He supports the Party’s decision to focus campaigning on climate change and inequality this year. Both, he argues, ‘transcend the conventional political binary.‘ Neither, he argues, are left or right issues. That said, he cautions that the Party must still allow creative ideas from the grassroots. The Party has ‘a really smart membership‘ and can’t just become ‘another big campaigning machine’.

The key, Vernon argues, is to ‘make it local‘. He attributes the Party’s success on child poverty and clean rivers to its ability to contextualise the issue. To connect on climate with most New Zealanders now, we need to put a lot of work in.

This is still a pretty distant thing. There’s this invisible gas that is the product of almost everything we do. And it will destroy our way of life. – Vernon

Talking at that level, or in the technicalities of emissions reductions and carbon accounting is not, we agree, a vote winner. ‘We will be dramatically affected’, but the key is describing those effects – and the solutions – at a human scale.

He points to his experience on the Local Board. It’s an ‘obvious and sensible approach‘ to use key international moments to campaign, but the way most people can make a difference on climate change, he suggests, is at the personal and community level. He sees success on climate not in grand international agreements, but smart cities.

Nation states are almost constitutionally incapable of giving away their competitive advantage. Countries treat climate negotiations as trade negotiations.* Countries can’t deal with it. – Vernon

Cities, Vernon argues, can. They have a ‘positive vision of adaptation‘. Weaning us off car dependent lifestyles is one example (he “walk[s] the talk” here, cycling frequently, living downtown, and not owning a car – not to mention his vegan diet).

Making people feel bad about driving does nothing… – Vernon

However, he argues, giving people alternatives does much. Most people hate their commutes. When you create decent public transport and cycling infrastructure, people use it – and their emissions fall.

Good urban design makes all the difference. – Vernon

But how should the Party campaign on climate? Would he want Russel’s portfolio? No, Vernon says – there is a ‘really strong competency in the Party‘. He would be very cautious in concentrating everything in one person, noting how much the Party relied on Russel for economic credibility. Because of this, Vernon would be ‘extremely wary about doing the same thing with something as fundamental as climate change‘.

Instead, climate change should be the Party’s ‘unifying project’. He notes that the Greens’ first generation of MPs were each extraordinarily strong campaigners on individual issues, but that only now, with the second generation of Green MPs in Parliament, is the Party able to tie together into one: an ‘evidence based, solutions focused‘ party.

Climate touches everything. It’s the soup in which we swim. … There is no perspective which is not relevant. – Vernon

Each MP, then, should campaign on one aspect of climate change: James on green business, Julie Anne on transport, Kevin on health, several (Holly, Jan, Denise) on getting a just transition. He refers also to other highly-ranked candidates, noting Marama and Barry’s strengths too.

Though focusing on the level of (smart) cities, Vernon doesn’t stop there. Our existing, very 20th century political system is ‘still in its death throes‘. We urgently need a transition to a new model, beyond socialism or capitalism.

We need to get to a low to zero carbon economy – steady state, whatever that might mean. – Vernon

He doesn’t see his role as creating a new economic model. After all, he’s no economist.

But has he read Naomi Klein’s This Changes EverythingHe’s ‘read the key sections‘. He’s ‘skimmed the rest’. He’s ‘got the skeleton of it‘ – and disagrees with its central thrust.

I disagree with the fundamental thesis of the book. – Vernon

Klein, Vernon argues, is a great journalist, strong on her core competency – but doesn’t see the bigger problem. She has, he says, ‘misdiagnosed the problem‘. She blames the economic system, which Vernon sees as no more than a symbol or symptom. It’s not capitalism versus the climate, he says, but that:

We, as a species, have not learned to live sustainably. – Vernon

That’s the problem. Blaming economics, he argues, is ‘a dangerous misdiagnosis‘; Klein’s ‘working on the wrong thing‘.

Though ‘we need to make a transition’, Vernon says we need to diagnose the right problem and cannot pin our hopes on a revolutionary break. Revolutions have never produced more sustainable outcomes.

There is so much work that can be done within the existing system. – Vernon

He points to the divestment movement – perhaps ironically, as Klein sits on the board of divestment champion – as an example, and to the rise of smart green businesses.

That’s not to say, however, that we can avoid an urgent transition. ‘The whole world is now‘, he laments, ‘run by managers’ – great at achieving the limited objectives they’re tasked with, but incapable of stepping back to see the bigger picture. We lack a meaningful governance layer. To face the climate crisis, therefore, he argues that we need to redefine what success looks like.

This is cataclysmic stuff now that we’ve gotten into. If anything’s going to galvanise people, it’s the crisis we’re now in.  – Vernon

We need to move from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric conception of justice, to ‘frame the rights of people in an ecocentric context‘. The Party, he argues, must take the best from the left, but not be of the left.

* Hey, that’s my line.